1. The flag
Many argued that the result of the independence referendum was irrelevant to the continuation of the name and flag for the current United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If Scotland became independent, it had promised to retain a “Social Union” with the rest of the country and, in particular, retain Her Majesty the Queen as Head of State. A situation, as some suggested, no different to the Great Britain of the personal union of James I of England and James VI of Scotland from 1603 – similar name, similar flag.
This wishful thinking would have ignored the reality of a “Yes” vote in September 2014 – Scotland would have rejected being part of the same nation state. It would have been incredible to retain that proud symbol of Scotland, the Saltire flag, within the Union Jack design. It would have been an act of deep denial. All it would have taken was for a foreign ambassador to ask our representative at the UN to explain the blue bit in the flag. Fumbling responses about the flag now representing the personal allegiance to the Queen would have been met with raised eyebrows and wry smiles. What then would have been the flag to represent the residual country if the Union Jack represented those nations owing allegiance to Her Majesty? At least there was some light-hearted recognition during the campaign that a new design for the flag would have been required. There were newspaper competitions for the new flag. This was treated like a school art exhibition rather than the solemn laying to rest of a beloved friend.
The flag waved with such enthusiasm at Jubilees, World Cup Finals, from grand hotel flagpoles, at the permanent seat of the Security Council of the United Nations, to blood-stained memorials from long-forgotten battlefields across the planet would have been no more. How many brave Tommy Atkins have given their last breath defending this flag to the last man at Isandhlwana, Kabul, Corunna, Kut and a thousand other obscure corners of the globe?
The Scottish political leaders of the Yes campaign were emphatic in their support for the Queen and the Social Union and there is no reason to question their sincerity. However, the future is a foreign country. If Scotland were to become independent then there is the potential that future generations of Scottish political leaders may think differently. As an independent nation, Scotland would be entitled to change its mind. Scotland can no more bind its future decisions than any other country. They could at some future point decide to have a Head of State different from the monarch for the rest of the UK. Unquestionably, the Union flag would then be dead and buried and there is nothing the rest of the country could do about it.
2. The name
And the name? It was only in August 2014 – with a few weeks to go before the referendum – that there was some public recognition that The Mouthful (“The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”) could not survive a “Yes” result. In Andrew Neil’s BBC documentary of that month not a single commentator suggested the name could remain unchanged. Much as we would like to think it, Great Britain is not so named because of reputation, but because of geography. In any dictionary, Great Britain or Britain is defined as “England, Wales and Scotland” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary p.517). There is no definition of Britain or Great Britain that does not include Scotland. If Scotland had voted Yes, Great Britain would have needed to be deleted from the name of the residual state.
But the geography would not have changed, so why change the name? Britain or Great Britain is a geographic phrase for the largest island of the British Isles. That would still be the case irrespective of whether it split into two independent nations or twenty. In the geographic sense, Britain or Great Britain would indeed survive the political break up of UK. The issue is that the name of the state describes the geography it represents – Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If the state no longer represents that geography then the name is wrong. No surprise that politicians talked about “the UK”, “the Union” or the “United Kingdom” – each of these conveniently ignores the geographical basis of the name of the state.
An alternative is that the name no longer represented the state but the personal allegiances to the Queen. Fair enough but technically you would need to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand etc. who ultimately recognise the Queen as their Head of State. And whilst all very well for Her Majesty to still describe these lands as her United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the residual state would still require some form of name.
This fundamental issue was ignored by politicians and the media as they continued to refer to the “United Kingdom” or “UK” and thus ignore the emotive words “Great Britain”. No political journalist had the courage to ask the politicians; “the United Kingdom of …..what exactly?”
Arguably would there even have been a United Kingdom? Wales historically has been a Principality; the crown of Ireland can now only refer to Northern Ireland as the rest of the island comprises the Republic of Ireland – definitely not a kingdom, definitely not part of the UK! Without Scotland, the nation state represented by England, Wales and Northern Ireland would struggle to justify calling itself a United Kingdom. None of this came out in debate. Another alternative was that Great Britain itself could have been redefined. No longer England, Wales and Scotland but now just England and Wales. But why confuse existing and future generations? England and Wales is, well, England and Wales. The only need to redefine Great Britain is if we were in denial that a Yes vote had won and Scotland had decided to be part of its own state.
So confused and marginalised was the debate about the future of the rest of the UK upon a Yes vote that the abbreviation “rUK” was invented. Beloved of constitutional lawyers, it will barely resonate with most readers. rUK means the residual United Kingdom. The rest of the country had no idea what to call itself if Scotland had become independent. It would have been the quiet death of Great Britain.